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I’ve been blogging here about “theology and vulnerability”—that is, about my heightened struggles with anxiety during the past year and my discernment about the relationship between who I am as a doctoral student in theology and as someone who struggles with mental health. In my last post I highlighted the unhealthy ways that many appear to respond to the anxiety-producing structures of the theological academy. I promised to finish up my little series with a few observations about those who cope better, and even thrive, in this environment. From them I’ve garnered some challenging lessons that I carry with me as I continue to face the difficulties of my vocational journey.
A week or so after I started my Master’s degree, I was given some of the best advice about graduate school that I have received to date. I had confessed to one of my mentors, Tom Beaudoin, that the perceived pressures and expectations of Harvard had already left me bewildered and concerned. So quickly I had felt my anxiety rise and encroach upon my love of theology, my intellectual curiosity, and my discernment about a vocational calling to theology. I sought reassurance from Tom, asking, “Will I cut it? What do they want? What should I be doing?”
He told me many things, all of which have been condensed into a single word of wisdom that has echoed in my mind for years. “Don’t apologize to anyone for how you choose to engage this experience.” It is only during the past year that I became truly attuned to the truth of his advice. Essentially, he advised me to be myself—freely, contentedly, unapologetically. He had the insight to know that if I was able to be myself, to become more comfortable with my own unique ability and style in theology—and in life more broadly—then these anxious questions and worries about external expectations would fade a bit.
While engaging the world as one’s self, one’s true self, may seem like it would be the most natural thing to do, I’ve often found it to be incredibly difficult. It is difficult, I think, because I have internalized so many other messages that promise peace and happiness in exchange for being someone other than who I really am. (e.g., “Smile less, or you won’t be taken seriously.” “Don’t write about this scholar, or that subject, because people will pigeon-hole you, tokenize you, even dismiss you without consideration.” “Wear heals when you teach. The sound and height will intimidate students so they don’t disrespect you as just another young woman.”). Many of these messages are not untrue, and many who pass them along do so with the very best intention of promoting my well-being.
Perhaps I would be taken more seriously if I smiled less, wore high-heels, and withheld or postponed my perspective about certain subjects. But I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be me, and I would have a head full of worries about who I ought to be at any given moment of every single day. A head full of worries about “what ‘they’ want” and “whether I’m cutting it” and “who I should be” has much less room for theological reflection and creativity. I know from experience.
The professors and peers who seem to love life in theology, who thrive despite the pressures and demanding structures of the academy, are those who are not consumed by who they ought to be as professional or aspiring theologians. This requires an immense amount of vulnerability. To come to theology as one’s self, unapologetically, may at times mean doing what seems unorthodox or unpopular to others. Likewise, not playing by the standard rules and strategies and timelines of the academy may lead some to be less “successful” or “accomplished” by certain standards. This risks painful rejection, too. Some of us will be rejected, at times unfairly, for being our true selves. This is the tremendous risk and vulnerability of bringing one’s true self to theology—or any vocation, for that matter.
My struggles with anxiety have brought me to a point where I simply can’t proceed in theology if I do it any other way than as myself. If being myself, unapologetically, allows me a sense of integrity about what I do—if it allows me to free up the headspace to think boldly and authentically and creatively, if it allows me to be content today rather than endlessly chasing after the promise of my future status in the profession—then the professional risks are worthwhile to me.
This remains terrifying at times. There are still days when my voice shakes violently as I force myself to speak in class. There are days when I belabor paragraphs or essay titles more out of fear than interest. There are days when I hesitate, anxiously, before clicking the “publish” key and letting my words take on a virtual life of their own. I am a bit more content than I used to be, however. More frequently than in the past, I face these situations as myself. A bit more courageous, a little more unapologetic.
And surprisingly, I’ve often discovered that things are not as frightening as I imagined they would be. I’ve brought my smile, given away my high heels, and spoken up and written about what matters to me most. And it’s been hard, but a bit more satisfying.
Is theology making me sick? This is one of the recurring questions I grappled with as I came to terms with my anxiety during the past year. This question—a really troubling existential one, one that potentially calls into question a lot of what I’ve been doing with my life for the past eight years—simply could not be avoided.
One of the many early benefits of counseling was a heightened awareness of the situations that triggered my anxiety. I took note when I sat in seminars and colloquia totally absorbed in the task of mitigating an anxiety-induced catastrophe. “You will not run out of the room,” I told myself moments before my presentation began. “You will not throw-up. You will not throw-up.” I paid attention when day after day I sat at my computer, tears streaming down my face, unable to write. As I recognized patterns among the scenarios that got my head spinning and my heart racing, I simply could not deny the fact that many aspects of my life as a graduate student triggered these spells of heightened panic.
So I began to wonder: “Is theology making me sick?” And if it is, could I continue on this career path in academic theology? I always suspected that theology itself was not the central cause of my problems. I would likely bring my anxiety, with its deep roots in my personal psyche, to whatever career I pursued. Still, there are a number of reasons why I continued to wonder whether there is something about this line of work that magnifies my personal struggle.
I have reason beyond my own personal experience to question whether the theological academy is a potential hazard to mental health. Some of the responders to my last post testified to the burdens that can accompany life in the academy, regardless of whether one struggles with mental illness. One commenter, Mags Blackie, eloquently captured this when she wrote that that process of “putting on the cloak of capability is something that afflicts us all” in the academy.
Another scholar, Ann Cvetkovich, makes her case for the psychological effects of the academy in her book, Depression: A Public Feeling. Eschewing the medicalization of mental illness as a reductive and insufficient account of the complex human experience of depression and anxiety, she exhorts cultural studies scholars to identify and interrogate the social structures that lead to these psychological states on a broad scale. She identifies capitalism as a major source of mental illness, and explores the ways that scholarly life amidst the production demands of the academy spawned her struggle with bipolar depression. In an industry notorious for its relatively scarce employment opportunities and its “publish or perish” demands for those fortunate enough to get a job, one can easily spiral into a recurring state of despair or constant worry, she explains.
I have some contentions with Cvetkovich’s project (e.g., in the same way that she is weary of reducing mental health to biological factors alone, I’m weary of the purely-cultural explanations on which she seems to rely), but her book has many convincing dimensions, especially in light of how I’ve watched others live in the theological academy for a number of years. Certain structures, like that of academic theology, do seem to affect people’s psychological health. Many accept varying degrees of depression and anxiety as completely normal states of mind among graduate students and theologians. For years I’ve heard peers comfort one other with the message that it’s perfectly normal to be miserable. “We’re graduate students or academics—of course things suck!” And, to be sure, there are aspects of graduate studies that, for the average student, are extremely difficult and warrant a proportionate amount of worry and struggle. But I have learned firsthand just how unhelpful—even damaging—this habitual justification can be. When someone is struggling with more severe manifestations of anxiety and depression there is a temptation to dismiss it as entirely acceptable. Anxiety and depression are just part of this way of life.
I’ve seen how this mentality spawns a perpetual deferment of happiness that can lead to years and decades of misery. We tell ourselves: I’ll be happy when I finish comps. I’ll be happy when I publish a peer-review article. I’ll be content when I finish the dissertation. I’ll be happy when I get a tenure-track job. I’ll have peace when I secure tenure….And in the meantime, people are miserable and this too often goes unquestioned. Is theology making us sick? Or, perhaps better put: Is theology making so many of us perpetually unhappy?
I am convinced that there are certain realities about academic theology that lend themselves to the widespread discontentment that I’ve personally experienced and witness among many peers and professors. However, as I considered whether I should stay in theology amidst escalations in my anxiety and its associations with my academic work, I also began to pay more attention to those who didn’t seem so affected by the pressures and demands of academic life. If there is something about theology that contributes to my illness and renders so many others perpetually unhappy, then what is it about these other people in theology who seem content? How is it that they appear immune?
Contrary to what one might assume, contentment in the theological academy is not only for those who are “successful” by the standards of the institution’s production demands. From what I observed, it is not reserved for the frequently published and prestigiously appointed. Peers and professors of varying levels of academic “accomplishment” and “success” aren’t paralyzed by the structures of this line of work. This raised some other important questions for me: Am I really just the passive product of a harsh system? Or have I been making myself sick?
During the past year I lived in the tension of these questions, and I’ve learned a few things in the process. This post is already quite long, however, so I’ll reserve those thoughts for my next post….
I embarked on a new adventure with the start of the school year: I am now a “TA,” or Teaching Assistant, for an undergraduate theology class at Boston College. After a couple weeks on the job I have greater insight into some of teaching’s challenges, but I also have a greater sense of the immense joy that teaching can bring. For instance, the comments of our students fascinate me, leaving my mind spinning with thoughts every time I depart from a class discussion or grading session.
Since early last week I’ve been circling around an observation one student voiced in class. We had spent the hour unpacking the first chapter of Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, which includes his argument that doubt is an essential component of faith. The professor asked whether religious communities are typically places where doubt is welcome, and unsurprisingly, most students replied in the negative. It was the phrasing of one student’s response that struck me in particular. She explained that she grew up Catholic and never felt like she could express her doubts about faith and God. Because she felt that her sincere doubts were unwelcome in the community, she often felt quite lonely.
This immediately stirred a mix of emotions in me. I empathized with this student, remembering the acute spiritual loneliness I experienced when I showed up to my first theology class as a freshman in college. Somehow I had also internalized this message that I was strange, even bad, because I couldn’t shake the personal doubts and intellectual questions that I brought to Catholicism. I was sad to hear that, all these years later, another young adult sits in a theology class feeling like I did, as if very little separated her experience of Catholicism and mine.
Meanwhile, I was hopeful and excited for this student. It was precisely the study of theology that dissolved so much of my spiritual loneliness. In theology I found a space where inquiry brought people together—a stark contrast to the feeling of isolation that doubt had engendered previously. Consequently, theology was from the first a space of immense vulnerability. The theological classroom was a space where I disclosed and engaged my “ultimate concern” in life—that which, according to Tillich, is the site of our finite encounter with the infinite. To question and doubt that which is most dear to us necessitates risk, and I was fortunate to experience the theological classroom as a safe space for such risk.
As the years passed, however, I have increasingly doubted whether theology is actually a safe space to explore and question what matters to me most. There are many reasons for this. It is due in part to the appropriate loss of naivety that has accompanied my advancement in the theological academy. Theology does not appear as romantic as it used to, and that’s probably a good thing. However, over the past year I’ve concluded that I’m often afraid to risk my questions and ideas in theology for a host of reasons that aren’t so good. Some of these inhibitions are purely internal to my psyche. Some are external. In the end, they are all inhabitations—factors that have, overtime, restricted my ability pursue my theological vocation courageously and with my whole heart.
In the next few days and weeks I plan to share about these inhibitions through some reflections on theology, fear, and vulnerability here on the blog. For many who have been a part of my everyday life during the past year, many of the forthcoming reflections will be familiar. I’ve decided to share them with everyone else here on the blog in light of what this student reminded me of earlier this week. One of the great lessons of my theological formation is that we are not alone as creatures in this world. When I look back on the past nine years I have never regretted the times when I reached out of the loneliness I experienced to be vulnerable and share openly about my struggles, doubts, and questions. So far, this vulnerability has been received with the confirmation that we are, in fact, not alone.
I was recently listening to a Radiolab podcast that featured writer Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that one). She spoke about inspiration, and how she has remained creative and productive as a writer. Earlier in her career, she had learned to talk her to inspiration–as if it were outside of her. “TELL ME YOUR NAME,” she had demanded of her book, “Eat, Pray, Love” when at the final stages of preparation before publication, the completed manuscript had no title. After yelling at it–literally–for days, she woke up one morning and there it was: the answer, the title. “I can feel the difference when something is produced purely from my own sweat and blood, and when something is given to me,” she said. A writer has to do the work, she confirmed, of course. But those moments of pure inspiration, those creative gifts that seem to originate from outside of oneself, those are the moments that interrupt the rest of the writing process and make it great.
Last summer while studying French, I learned that the word “essay” is an adaptation of the French verb, “essayer.” Plainly, “essayer” means “to try.” An essay–a try. These linguistic connections are some of the simple pleasures of language study: with the acquisition of a single foreign word, even the most native term can take on a whole new depth of meaning. An essay–a try. It made so much sense to me.
And I think it resonated with me because of the creative process that Gilbert described. When I sit down to write, I am trying–trying to write well, yes–but really, truly, I am trying to be open to that something else…that something “given” that Gilbert describes as inspiration. In that sense, I am trying not to write at all. The best stuff on the page doesn’t originate from within me. It hits me, smack in the head, while I’m mid-way through a sentence at my keyboard. I can feel that it arrives from a different place. From where?
Theologian Gordon Kaufman describes God as Creativity. I’m not sure it’s God, but I do think, whatever it is, it helps me to believe in God. There is something deeply sacramental about this experience within the writing process: in the relationship between a writer and her words, something good and beyond interrupts. Mystery interrupts what is otherwise mundane and laborious. Isn’t that precisely the experience of the world the compels me toward the Divine?
It is the end of finals here at Harvard–and the completion of my Master’s degree, at that. And this is the time of every semester when we find ourselves asking, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” All the pressure, all the essays, ALL the essays. Still, I keep trying and trying and trying–because, when I ask myself “Why do I do this? WHY do I do this?” I realize I am still waiting, crazy like Elizabeth Gilbert, for the mystery to interrupt. I want to keep waiting, to keep writing. An essay–a try.
“You’ve heard she’s going to Boston College next year?” she said, gesturing toward me, as we stood around the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard this afternoon. She was referring to my decision to start a PhD in Systematic Theology at BC in the fall.
“Yes I have heard!” said the other woman. “You’re entering the battle ground!” she exclaimed. “I’ve heard what the bishops have done to Elizabeth Johnson at Fordham.” She was referring to the recent negative statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning the work of Prof. Johnson, one of the leading Catholic feminist theologians of our time. Although much of the theological world has dismissed the legitimacy of any and all of these claims made by the USCCB, the statement has stirred a great deal of controversy nevertheless.
“There is still hope, though!” the first woman replied. Still hope for the future of feminist theology in this church.
“Really?”said the other.
“Yes, yes, there must be! We must hope.” Hope.
Once we found our seats the event moderator introduced Dr. Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha India, an organization in Delhi committed to transforming the lives of the 1/3 of Dehli’s population living in the urban slums. Dr. Martin recounted her story: As a young medical student, she decided to visit Delhi’s urban slums; despite living in the city her whole life, she had never visited these areas in her city. There, she found herself amid a cholera outbreak and felt compelled to offer her medical services to the sick children there. Once she established regular medical services in these communities, she realized they needed housing renovations. Once those began, she realized they needed property rights. Then, she realized they needed opportunities for higher education, and so on.
What began with a single woman, offering what she could for the betterment of a community in need, has resulted in a large, holistic, and exceptionally influential NGO that works with some of the poorest of the global poor.
“Asha,” she told us, “is Hindi for ‘hope.'” She had called her life’s work, “Hope.”
If this woman, with this monumental mission, can call this work, “Hope,” then perhaps I can claim it for my small work, too. Perhaps I, too, can be one woman, merely offering what I can for the betterment of one community. Perhaps that is how hope can survive, maybe even thrive, in the day to day.
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style,
My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God’s Heart at all.
Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy to hear.
So what if the music has stopped for a while.
If the price of admission to the Divine
Is out of reach tonight…
For He will not be able to resist your longing
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.
You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
O my sweet,
O my sweet, crushed angel.
My friend Chuck and I meet once a week to study for the GRE. We know we wouldn’t glance at a single analogy this summer without the accountability. Even then, our plans to plow through a few more drills during our time together are inevitably amended for the sake of rousing discussion about theology and our vocations as educator-artist-theologians.
Last week we were musing about good theology–about the nature of it, the courage and creativity of it. I confessed to him how badly I crave to write something honest and beautiful like our favorite scholars and theologians. Like Foucault, or Simone Weil.
“There are these rare moments of ecstasy when I’m playing with my band–” Chuck told me. He is a musician, and you would know it by hearing him mention a few words on the subject; you can hear it in the reverent tone of his voice. “These moments of beauty and ecstasy–I think they’re like the beauty of theology you’re talking about.” I nodded, encouraging him. “When I’m with my band I can’t force that, you know? It’s a combination of too many things–it’s the way the musicians are playing together that night, it’s the space, it’s the crowd and their chemistry with us.”
Remembering the rush of a great concert, I affirmed, “Yes, that’s what I want, and I know it is about more than just me. When I write I am working so hard, but God doesn’t always show up, ya know? That energy and beauty doesn’t always come.” I paused, and then confided to him, “We’ve been working on these applications to doctoral programs, Chuck, and I feel like there is so much riding on this performance. It’s like a show with an audience full of the most brilliant musicians, all of them scrutinizing you, expecting to witness greatness…”
“I’ve been at shows when the ecstasy didn’t come. When the performance never reached that perfection,” he told me. “But you know, I could tell how much the band wanted it. And sometimes that’s enough for a great show. It’s not the ultimate; it not ecstasy, but sometimes it’s enough for audience to just witness that hunger within you.”
Hafiz says that even when we do not dance so badly, and even when we waltz with tremendous style, God does not always appear there on the dance floor. This does not mean that God is not watching the beautiful dance, I am sure. “So what?” Hafiz says, writing so affectionately of this angel as she dances. So what? So what? Perhaps the performance can be beautiful, even as her partner still pauses at the edge of the dance floor.
Perhaps I can create something beautiful, whether or not perfection takes me for a waltz today…
Amid these long days curled over my laptop and yellow-paged library books, I have been stepping out into the fresh air for a walk on the Labyrinth. The white-stoned, circular meditation walk rests on the edge of a grassy lawn across from the entrance of Andover, Harvard’s theology library. The Labyrinth is warm from many hours under the sun, so I often take off my shoes to feel the heat radiating from the stone. Sometimes my shoes feel as confining as the walls of the wooden study carol where I have been writing my final papers all week. The labyrinth winds back and forth from beginning to end, and no matter how many times I walk it, I find myself feeling directionless there; that’s part of what makes it effective, I think. All I can do is look down at the path carved out in the stone, place one foot in front of the other, and follow the path in front of me.
During my second week at Harvard, I sat down for dinner with one of my mentors and I confessed my excitement and anxiety about the year ahead. I had no doubt that I did not want to be anywhere but HDS; I already loved my classes and professors, and my peers were brilliant and fascinating. Still, I worried that I could not live up to the opportunity. What if I’m what this place expects? What if they don’t like my ideas, or my approach? “Just give yourself to this process!” he reassured me. “This is amazing! I’m so excited for you! Just give yourself to this process…” I’ve repeated these words a thousand times this year.
On the days when I am particularly anxious, I look up in the midst of my labyrinth walk, and I am startled, “Have I moved at all?” This is a ridiculous question, of course. I’ve been walking for the last five minutes. Yet, really and truly, there are moments when I look up at all the turns of this winding circular path and I wonder this. I don’t have the patience for it. I ache for a reminder of progress! But all that’s there is another corner to pivot—a corner that looks just like the one I passed five paces ago. I want a reminder of progress! And then—I remind myself that that is not the point.
People often ask me if I picture myself doing something other than theology in the future. Typically, I reply with something like, “Well, I’m old enough to know that life cannot be planned. So, I try to remain open. But right now, I really see myself moving in the direction of theology.” For some reason I do not tell them about the moment earlier this year when I was sitting at my kitchen table with my roommate, Sarah. It was one of those anxious days, one when I was doubting myself again. She asked me that question about the possibility of doing something else, and I started to cry when I told her the complete truth, saying, “I don’t know what else I could possibly do…” It is not that I could not find employment, and even satisfaction, in any number of other careers. No. The truth is that I feel so deeply that this is what I am called to do, for myself and for my community, that even on the hard days I cannot see myself working toward anything else. And sometimes the calling frightens me. But it is always there, and it is so much mine that I can’t imagine leaving it.
The panicked, directionless moments are so often an occasion for reminding myself that I am moving, and that I’m exactly where I need to be. “Just give yourself to this process,” I tell myself. “One step at a time. One step. One step,” I tell myself again. When I confront my doubt with the truth of my call, I remember all the moments of epiphany this year—all the moments when I have felt more free than I ever have before—more myself, and more with God, and more with and for my people than I could have ever imagined.
The stone is warm under the soles of my feet, and I lean forward to take another step—